Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

If Gov. Cooper won’t debate Berger on Medicaid, I know a few thousand who will

Prepare for the right to make hay about this. And prepare for Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to continue to pressure North Carolina legislative leaders behind the scenes to roll over on Medicaid expansion, an issue that may divide the Republican caucus, if virtually no one else.

The editorial boards of the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh’s News & Observer have called upon Cooper and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, North Carolina’s Medicaid miser-in-chief, to debate the issue. Berger’s office has indicated its willingness, but Cooper’s office says legislators should focus instead on responding to his budget proposal.

Cooper should debate Berger, no question, but in his absence, I can imagine hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, those blockaded by the GOP’s political stranglehold over Medicaid, would be happy to step in.

Berger and the governor have spoken quite a bit, but it’s those residents of this state continually dehumanized by the blockade who deserve a microphone.

For the better part of a decade, Republicans have insisted that the federally-funded expansion is a financial liability in waiting, even if the expansion’s healthcare and economic benefits are about as nebulous as simple arithmetic.

I know it may seem as if the federal government will not endure the smoking crater in the White House, but it will, and so will Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Holding out, as North Carolina Republicans have, is intractable buffoonery. It’s mindless and heartless.

Here’s a portion of the Observer’s editorial from this morning:

The governor and other advocates believe expanding Medicaid here would provide health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, increase jobs and help struggling rural hospitals. Cooper has intensified his public push for expansion by meeting affected parties in Raleigh and across the state. “I believe straight up Medicaid expansion is the best option,” he said earlier this month, “but I’m willing to discuss concerns of leaders in both chambers to ensure that more North Carolinians can get access to affordable health care.”

Berger, in an op-ed last month, said he thinks expanding Medicaid is an economic risk that would result increased health care costs and increased wait times at medical offices. He and House speaker Tim Moore have declined to give their blessing to compromise legislation that Democrats believe might get enough Republican votes to pass.

Yes, it’s possible that a debate won’t change the immediate political dynamic. It might even cause each side to dig in further on Medicaid rather than risk the impression of a debate loss. But there’s also the possibility that the debate could reveal to each side — and North Carolinians — at least a little common ground that could provide a foundation for compromise.

We’ve given the governor’s and Senate leader’s offices a heads up on our debate invitation. Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told the editorial board Monday that the senator is agreeable to debating the governor. Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told us the governor is not going to debate, and that Republicans should respond to Cooper’s compromise budget proposal. We agree. But we also think the the governor has a good case to make and defend on Medicaid expansion. We hope he decides it’s one that worth debating.

agriculture, Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

Commentary:

1. In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

If North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson ever fizzled in his lustrous perch in DPI’s corner office, his sharpest critics surmised, he would be failed by his extraordinarily limited bona fides.

After all, when it comes to Johnson’s background – two years in a Charlotte classroom via Teach for America, a stint as a corporate attorney, and a brief tenure as a school board member in Winston-Salem – there is simply not much to parse over.

“I mean, he has taught two years,” a flabbergasted June Atkinson marveled in 2016, with no small amount of condescension, when Johnson ousted her. “He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background. So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?”

The image conjured up by Atkinson’s damning assessment – that of an in-over-his-head novice – endures today among Johnson’s detractors.

But after IStation, after the iPads, after the supremely suspect rollout of the superintendent’s propagandizing website, perhaps we were wrong. [Read more…]

Bonus read: Monday numbers: A closer look at the depleted ranks at the Department of Public Instruction

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2. NC Supreme Court justice publicly maligns colleagues, urges critics of America to “just leave” the country


State judicial code makes discipline unlikely for Justice Paul Newby

The only registered Republican on the state Supreme Court likely won’t face any consequences after publicly disparaging his fellow justices, urging a crowd to watch their work over the next 18 months for judicial activism, and telling people who don’t like America to “just leave.”

“Sue till you’re blue. Sue till you’re blue,” said Paul Newby during a speech in Wake County two weekends ago. “What do you think the most dangerous branch of government is? The judicial branch is the correct answer. Imagine seven AOC’s on the state Supreme Court.”

Newby, who has announced he will run for Chief Justice in 2020, was met with clapping and a loud “boo” from the crowd. He was referring to New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose initials have become a sort of Republican slur. [Read more…]

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Commentary:

3. Unbecoming of a judge: NC Supreme Court justice’s Trump-like comments go too far

It’s no secret that the United States has a significant and growing problem when it comes to the matter of selecting judges. This problem was on vivid public display in 2016, when the Republican majority of the United States Senate refused to consider a highly qualified presidential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a full year on blatantly partisan grounds.

As troubling as the blockade of Merrick Garland and the subsequent flood of frequently unqualified ideologues advanced by President Donald Trump have been, however, the situation is arguably even more dire at the state level, where the phenomenon of judges running for election continues to give rise to all manner of problematic behavior – both by judicial candidates themselves and the forces supporting and opposing their candidacies.

As Policy Watch journalist Melissa Boughton reported yesterday, there was a new and troubling installment in this ongoing saga last week when North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby let loose with a startlingly partisan attack on his fellow justices during a speech to a Wake County Republican audience.[Read more…]

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4. Hours wasted and a flip-flop on hemp in the Farm Act befuddles House committee

The NC Farm Act: Four months, seven editions, at least a dozen hours of committee hearings and legislative staff time, reams of paper, hundreds of miles of travel by the public, some from as far away as the mountains — and today the bill is back to its original Senate form.

“Why is the ag committee chair [Rep. Jimmy Dixon] taking a different position than earlier in the process?” Rep. Chuck McGrady said in the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I’m confused.”[Read more…]

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5. Activists to Congress: N.C. residents living ‘on bottled water and fear’ 

What did leading chemical corporations know about the health risks of PFAS, and when did they know it?

Members of Congress sought an answer to that question this week at a hearing on widespread public exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a dangerous class of chemicals that’s ubiquitous in North Carolina and other states. One lawmaker described PFAS as “the DDT of our era.”

California Rep. Harley Rouda, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee, opened the hearing by accusing companies of withholding information from the public.

DuPont and other companies have long known about the negative health effects of PFAS, which are used in everyday products such as microwave popcorn bags and nonstick pans, Rouda said. [Read more…]

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6. The budget, the veto and Medicaid

Democratic Senator who initially supported the budget says it’s time for the GOP to negotiate

The political stand-off over whether to expand Medicaid is stretching the state budget stalemate deep into summer with no end in site. But this week Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she’s worried about how the gridlock could hurt the 1.6 million low-income North Carolinians already using Medicaid and undermine planned changes to the system.

The current Medicaid program in North Carolina is complex and expensive, with the federal government paying $2 to every $1 the state contributes to its $14 billion annual cost. But the way that system works is set to undergo a significant change in November. [Read more…]

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7. Partisan gerrymandering trial to conclude today after Thursday bombshell

A two-week long trial about whether Republican lawmakers violated the constitution when they drew voting maps to maximize their partisan advantage will come to an end today.

The Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel likely won’t make a decision for a least a few weeks after hearing mostly complex testimony from expert witnesses that delved deep into the weeds of North Carolina redistricting.

The trial will continue at 9 a.m. today with another expert witness, this time called to testify on behalf of the intervenors in Common Cause v. Lewis.

John Branch, an attorney for the intervenors — a group of Republican voters — commenced a direct examination of Michael Barber, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, late Thursday afternoon. [Read more…]

Bonus reads:
Did Hofeller draw NC maps before redistricting process? Judges throw out expert testimony showing he didn’t

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8. After “A Decade Without a Raise” workers, elected officials call for raising minimum wage

Dayosha Davis works in fast food, lives in public housing in Durham and struggles to provide for her two children.

Child care starts at $250 a week, she said, which is difficult to afford on the $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

“Last year I enrolled my daughter in pre-school,” Davis said. “And I had to take her out of pre-school because I couldn’t continue to pay for her education, even with help from my mother. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Wednesday marked 10 years since North Carolina last raised the minimum wage — from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. [Read more…]

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9. Listen to our latest radio interviews and micro-podcasts

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10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Legislature

Senate passes billboard measure, eroding local control, allowing for more digital outdoor ads

A bill to boost the fortunes and power of the outdoor advertising industry is closer to becoming law after it passed the Senate yesterday 27-17. House Bill 645, “the billboard bill,” now returns to the House for concurrence.

Among the bill’s opponents are environmental, conservation and wildlife groups, who are concerned that outdoor advertising companies would cut down trees to ensure their “right to be viewed.” A greater number of the giant roadside ads would also further clutter the natural landscape.

The bill language is vague enough to allow digital billboards — illuminated advertisements that change every few seconds — to replace traditional ones.

Local governments would also be stripped of nearly all of their power to regulate billboards, including banning or limiting digital versions.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republicans Jason Saine, Jimmy Dixon and Brendan Jones, and Democrat Michael Wray in the House; Republicans Chuck Edwards and Harry Brown and Democrat Wiley Nickel are the Senate co-sponsors.

Bill supporters say the measure is necessary to help the outdoor advertising industry — with its powerful lobbyists and generous campaign contributions — survive.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, introduced several amendments, all of which failed, that would have empowered local governments to have the final say on where billboards can be moved. “No local input is one of the underlying challenges with this bill,” Woodard said. 

Edwards said he is “sympathetic to local control, but that lawmakers have an obligation to state taxpayers for the cost of moving the advertisements.”

However, the bill goes beyond the financial aspects of billboard relocation. Current statutes protect billboard owners from “takings,” and require DOT to pay a fair price if an outdoor advertisement must be moved to make way for a new or expanded thoroughfare.

But the new measure, Woodard said, “expands the power of the owner of the billboard. Every billboard could be moved within 250 feet from its current location and vegetation removed without local input.”

Billboards that are removed through eminent domain could be relocated within two miles of its current location. That could include areas near, or in some cases, within residential neighborhoods.

There are about 8,200 billboards in North Carolina that are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted. Nonetheless, as more businesses advertise online, the industry has lost about 1,000 statewide in the past decade. Although the public still views billboards positively, according to an 2017 analysis by Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, “billboards have been losing ground to other media,” Woodard said. “Think about your own [political] campaigns. Compare your budgets for billboards to digital and direct mail. The same is true of local businesses.

“This has forced the billboard industry to fight for every last location and every technology and tool to survive,” Woodard went on. 

(Newspapers and other print media, which fulfill critical public service purposes, have experienced even deeper job losses and closures. No legislation in North Carolina has been introduced to prop up the news business.)

Many of the billboard companies are based outside North Carolina. Based in Baton Rouge, La., Lamar is publicly traded and operates more than 100 offices in the US and Canada. Interstate is based in New Jersey; Fairview is headquartered in Atlanta. Capital Outdoor Advertising is based in Zebulon.

The NC Outdoor Advertising political action committee contributes to both parties, but tends to give more to Republicans. Campaign finance data show that the billboard industry PAC contributed $2,000 each to the Senate and House Republican caucuses last year; the Democratic counterparts received just $500 each.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Saine received $1,000 from the PAC in 2018 and another $2,000 in 2016. Sen. Brown received $2,000 in 2016.

Capital’s president, Steve Bryant, contributed $550 to Sen. Nickel’s campaign last year and added another $500 recently, on June 6.

Environment, Legislature

Billboard measure up for final Senate vote this morning; digital billboard question remains unsolved

A Lamar outdoor advertising map shows the locations of all its billboards in North Carolina. This doesn’t include those owned by other companies. About 8,200 billboards in the state are permitted or in the process of being permitted. (Map: Lamar)

There are about 8,200 billboards in North Carolina that are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted; now imagine if every one of those highway advertisements became a digital beacon of blinking lights all vying for your attention.

While it’s extremely unlikely that every billboard would be converted to digital, House Bill 645, would allow more — and possibly much brighter — outdoor advertising, including in places it doesn’t currently exist. The measure pits an outdoor advertiser’s “right to be clearly viewed” against local governments’ authority to regulate the siting of digital billboards.

The bill was resurrected this session after two years’ of dormancy. Among its many provisions, the measure’s original language would have prevented local governments from banning digital billboards. Durham is among the municipalities that has enacted such a prohibition

The bill has been through five revisions in the Senate, most recently yesterday. Sen. Chuck Edwards’ amendment removes “customary use” language from the bill, replacing it with a reference to a general statute, to assuage concerns that digital billboards could replace traditional ones over local officials’ objections.

Edwards, who represents three mountain counties, said during a floor discussion that the statute — NCGS 136-131.2 — defines “modernization” in a manner that prevents billboards from being converted to digital over local government objections.

However, there is still confusion over the term “modernization.” An NCDOT analysis from March 2019, conducted before the recent legislation was introduced, refers to that same statute. The DOT analysis includes examples of modernization as “static faces become digital” and the replacement of wooden multi-pole structures with steel monopoles.

The measure passed its second reading in the Senate and is scheduled for its third reading this morning when the Senate convenes at 9:30. The bill passed the House, but since its language has significantly changed, it could go to a conference committee before ratification.

Commentary, Education, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

After budget passes, Gov. Cooper goes on the offensive in promising a veto

Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plans to veto the budget bill Friday.

Facing, for the first time in his term, some hope of sustaining a veto of Republican lawmakers’ budget, Gov. Roy Cooper wasted little time Friday.

Cooper — flanked by teachers, health care officials, influential progressives and, perhaps, a few key swing votes in the Democratic caucus — slammed legislators’ $24 billion spending plan as a “failure of common sense and common decency” at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.

A few blocks away, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — perhaps the most powerful Republican in the state — held a press conference in the legislative building, chiding the governor for his decision. Berger argued that Cooper is holding up the state’s spending plan over Medicaid expansion.

“If (Cooper) says he’s willing to compromise, I’m more than happy to have our members engage with him,” Berger said. “I will tell you I’m not optimistic about his willingness to compromise based on his track record.”

It’s as if, eight months ago when Democrats broke Republicans’ veto-proof majority in both the state House and Senate, we could have written this contrived script out entirely then.

Cooper demands Medicaid expansion, a mostly federally-funded initiative expanding health care access for low-income North Carolinians.

And Republican lawmakers, who’ve rarely faced even a fleeting necessity for compromise in the last decade, scoff.

It’s only a matter of resolving whether the remaining negotiations last days, weeks or, gulp, months.

“Overall, this budget is bad, it prioritizes the wrong things,” Cooper told reporters Friday. The budget values tax breaks over public schools, he insisted, and “political ideology over people,” likely a reference to Medicaid.

Cooper was joined at the mansion Friday by Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Cohen has urged lawmakers to adopt Medicaid expansion since Cooper appointed her to the role in January 2017.

The governor’s budget also breaks sharply with Republicans on K-12 spending, teacher raises, and school construction. Facing an $8 billion tab for school infrastructure, Cooper, like House Speaker Moore, has supported a statewide bond committing billions. Berger and Senate legislators emphasized a “pay-as-you-go” approach, pledging to spend more than $4 billion on school buildings in the next decade.

Ask a teacher whether they’re willing to trust lawmakers’ promise of future action, particularly given the infrastructure bill owes to years, not months, of neglect from state leaders.

Overriding the governor’s veto will require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. And while a handful of Democrats voted with Republicans on the budget bill this week, it’s unclear whether any would go so far as to join Republicans in the override.

Case in point: Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat awaiting confirmation for an appointment to the state Utilities Commission, stood directly behind Cooper Friday. McKissick voted with the GOP to approve the budget Thursday, but it seems most unlikely he’d support the override.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

Berger repeated his assertion Friday that lawmakers were open to a conversation about Medicaid expansion, provided it’s held in a special session, something of a ludicrous delaying tactic given the issue’s front-burner position for most of the decade.

Republicans leaders are expected to woo Democrats to their side with “pork” spending on local projects in the budget, a point Berger seemed to hint at Friday.

“I believe every member should vote on this bill based on what they believe is best for their districts and their constituents,” he said. “And not what is best for their political party.”

Berger claimed that he has not asked for nor received any pledges from Democrats to vote with the GOP.

Still, the Senate leader acknowledged there may be lawmakers in his party willing to consider expansion, but not enough to pass it. Berger added that he would not support the expansion, repeating the claim that the increased Medicaid spending could “blow a hole in the budget” if the federal government reneges on its promise to pay the lion’s share of the tab.

Far-right Republicans have made that argument for years now — even if moderate conservatives saw the innate logic and humanity in expansion — and that provision of Obamacare seems no more likely to be scrapped today than it did when the GOP first rebuffed expansion in 2013.

The House is expected to consider an override vote first. The haggling, I assure you, is already underway behind closed doors.

What happens from here on out is decidedly less predictable.